Ask a Poet

The Writer's Dress Code




Ask a Poet
Click image to read more...
I work in an office full of very smart, well-meaning people. But they don't read poetry!  What can I do to get them more interested in this most important of endeavors?
— Dr. Sunshine, Boston, Massachusetts


I’m about to describe a scheme that is so calculated and maniacal that you might appreciate it, Dr. S. This might take a lot of preparation, but it will be worth it. First, print out several poems that you’d like your coworkers to read, selecting a different poem for each person according their interests. Let’s say that a woman in your office likes basketball — pick a basketball poem for her:

Basketball is like this for Walt Whitman. He watches these Indian boys
as if they were the last bodies on earth. Every body is brown!
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman dreams of the Indian boy who will defend him,
trapping him in the corner, all flailing arms and legs
and legendary stomach muscles. Walt Whitman shakes
because he believes in God. Walt Whitman dreams
of the first jumpshot he will take, the ball arcing clumsily
from his fingers, striking the rim so hard that it sparks.
Walt Whitman shakes because he believes in God.
Walt Whitman closes his eyes. He is a small man and his beard
is ludicrous on the reservation, absolutely insane.
His beard makes the Indian boys righteously laugh. His beard
frightens the smallest Indian boys. His beard tickles the skin
of the Indian boys who dribble past him. His beard, his beard!
God, there is beauty in every body. Walt Whitman stands
at center court while the Indian boys run from basket to basket.
Walt Whitman cannot tell the difference between
offense and defense. He does not care if he touches the ball.
Half of the Indian boys wear t-shirts damp with sweat
and the other half are bareback, skin slick and shiny.
There is no place like this. Walt Whitman smiles.
Walt Whitman shakes. This game belongs to him.
(Sherman Alexie, “Defending Walt Whitman”)

Now, print out the poems that you’ve selected for your coworkers and arrive to the office early before anybody else gets there. Playing the Mission: Impossible theme song on your iPod, go under each person’s desk and tape the appropriate poem face up: one for Basketball Lady, one for the coworker obsessed with politics (Richard Shelton’s “Politics Last Summer”), one for the optimist (Emily Dickinson’s #254, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”), one for the pessimist (“There is no hope” by Uruguayan poet Idea Vilariño).

Of course your coworkers will suspect something if you are in the office early, giggling in your cube, so get out of there for a while. Go down the street and get a cup of coffee, then rush in as usual, six and a half minutes late, grumbling about the inefficient public transportation system and nobody will suspect a thing.

The timing of the next step is dependant on a number of factors — phone calls, bathroom breaks, birthday cake deliveries — but at some point, when everybody is at their seat and you can only hear the disparate clicks of keyboards and the creepy sounds from the boiler room, scream at the top of your lungs: “EARTHQUAKE! OMIGOSH, EARTHQUAKE! EVERYBODY, GET UNDER YOUR DESK!” 

“Earthquakes in Boston?”  Yes, one in the 1600s shook up the pilgrims, and another followed a hundred years later. And according to Eva Zakeria, who wrote her Harvard honors thesis on what would happen if an earthquake of equal magnitude struck today, most downtown buildings would crumple like drafts of a bad poem, and if you happen to be traveling underground in the impervious Big Dig…well, enough said. So, don’t get alarmed, but the threat is real.

Anyway. Somehow, someway, you’ve got to get your colleagues under their desks, whereby they can discover, much to their delight and relief, not the collapsing walls of their building trapping them on the eighth floor, but…a poem!  A delightful poem that somebody has thoughtfully selected for them to read and enjoy!

I think the reason a lot of people don’t read poems anymore is because society as a whole relies on external measures to reach an entertainment threshold that keeps getting higher and higher. What you’ve got to do is bring poetry up to the entertainment threshold met by live bands, Will Smith movies, and nudie YouTube clips. The “EARTHQUAKE” trick would do just that, not only providing them with one-time entertainment, but with an experience they can always reflect on every time they read a new poem, which of course they will do so they can “relive” the experience.

You might get fired if you do this, but…Dr. S, you know what I’m going to say next, don’t you? Trust me — it is worth it.


My daughter’s in college, and her wardrobe is becoming increasingly scandalous. I saw a picture of her recently wearing a tube top. I always tell her that a serious writer (she wants to be a journalist) wouldn’t dress that way.

Writers probably have the most freedom of any profession to wear what they want to work, if they work at home and/or are unemployed, perusing through daily employment ads, effort-fully writing cover letters that can convince an employer that they can do something in addition to book work. But journalists in particular need to dress appropriately at the workplace, and that means no tube tops…depending on the publication, of course.

The thing is that your daughter’s not at the workplace. She’s young, exploring the boundaries of a new college campus, and she’s probably, for the first time since her adolescence, appreciating her curves. Elizabeth Alexander, who is pretty much the authority right now on everything (as her reading at Barack Obama’s inaugural celebration demonstrates), says:     

Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.

(“The Venus Hottentot”)

The shortest skirts, the tightest tops, won’t expose everything that your daughter is. I know — that’s comforting.


I’m taking calculus this semester and I can’t even understand the most basic problems. I feel like such an idiot. I want to be a vet, and I’m required to take this class, but I just can’t do this stuff. Maybe I should be a poet. I’m just curious, how would a poet solve this:

 — CV, Columbus, Ohio

I still don’t know what color to call this place:
purple-blue, or blue-green, or glaucous as costal mist.

                        (Jessica Harman, “New Themes”)

CV, veterinarians don’t sit around with a pencil and paper all day doing equations — they make our pets feel better!  The calculus class that you’re struggling with is just a prerequisite to train your mind and test your dedication. Just get through it, taking advantage of your university’s tutoring services and your professor’s office hours. I don’t think it’s easy to be a veterinarian, but that’s exactly why it’s worth it. You’ve got to follow your dreams. And anyway, “a poet” should never be anyone’s second professional choice. What if all construction workers, when they reached an obstacle, said, “Well, I messed up with that critical piece of infrastructure — I’ll just be a poet instead.” Can you imagine? We’d all be living in decrepit cities reading bad literature. We’d all be poor, too. • 2 February 2009




Kristen Hoggatt lives, works and writes in Boston, where she is also pursuing her MFA at Emerson College. Send questions to poet@thesmartset.com.